Ellie Goulding: Girl on Fire


By Paul Flynn

Ellie Goulding can do heartache like the best of them, but her musical range— from anthems like 'Burn' to her U.S. breakout, 'Lights'—owes itself to her idol and guide, Björk.

When Goulding emerges from her shell, she’s a warm conversationalist. She’s known for singing songs mostly about her boyfriends, with phrasing that is audibly indebted to her heroine. “Everything made sense to me when I heard her,” she says of Björk, a subject on which she is positively ecstatic. “My love of classical music, my love of electronic music, my love of pop music, even my heavy metal phase through ‘Army of Me’—all of it came together through Björk. ‘Big Time Sensuality’? There you have it. There’s everything in that song. It made me think, Fuck, this is what I’m going to do.” She has never met Björk but once came close, when for a brief period between albums she was squired around the world in a baptism of EDM fire by her then-boyfriend, stadium dubstep imp Skrillex. For a season before breaking up they sported sweetly matching undercuts. “I was in Costa Rica for a big dance event with Sonny [Skrillex],” she says, “and in this hotel afterward, everyone was getting told off for the noise. Björk was talking to Sonny, and I was so jealous. I’ve never been starstruck, and I’ve met some of the biggest stars in the world. But with her, I felt it. I tried to sort of edge in, in this comedic way, and it just was not happening and I was gutted that she wasn’t introduced to me.”

And what did Sonny say she was like? “They stayed in touch! Everyone was really drunk that night. She’s enigmatic. She’s got a presence. I didn’t want to just walk up to her. She’s too special for that.”

If a rotating door of semi-famous boyfriends, of which Sonny was the most globally recognizable, has configured her as an unlikely tabloid target in Britain, it has further provided her with fertile writing material. The song of which she is most proud, the shiny fairytale narrative “Anything Could Happen,” which was used in the trailer for the second season of Girls, was about replacing the assumed surrender of single life with jubilation.

“I felt like I’d become bolder with how I express myself with people,” she explains. “I was putting myself in quite a strong position as a woman where, for once, I could really, truly say, ‘I don’t need you.’ I went through a period of my life where I felt like I was dependent on being with someone, relying on someone for emotional support. Eventually I was in a position where I was not relying on anyone.”

This position may have changed. Tabloids have reported rumors of Goulding’s relationship with One Direction’s Niall Horan, but it’s her fellow surprise hit British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran—another who found commercial alchemy by mingling a robust metropolitan dance urge with folksy trappings—who solicits a discreet blush. Sheeran’s success is a cheerful British tale; there is something deeply lovable about him being the anatomic opposite of the Hit Factory star machine model. “There is,” Goulding says. “I know that.” And then: “Don’t I know it!”

I mention the young gay boys drawn to her tales of whimsical heartache and reticent independence, wondering whether she has any family members she can attribute the connection to. “No. No uncles, I’m afraid—just many, many gay friends,” she says, and then mentions her best friend, currently traveling from New York to see her. “She’s one of my absolute favorite people in the world ever.”

Has she ever dabbled with girls? She throws herself back on her sofa and lets out a peal of mock-affronted laughter before reaching for a cushion to keep her mouth shut. It’s pretty clear what the answer is. “I probably shouldn’t go there,” she says, howling. “I can’t have another kettle of fish opened up. I just can’t. There’s too many already.”